Behind the Mask: June Y. Hou, MD
#BehindtheMask is a series that spotlights the faculty, staff, and trainees in Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Today, meet June Hou, MD, a gynecologic oncology specialist and Co-Director of the Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Program.
It’s been said that life is a series of moments – birthdays, vacations, graduations, births, and less joyful moments, too, of struggle and loss. As a gynecologic oncology specialist helping patients through what may be the most difficult times in their lives, June Hou, MD, believes in celebrating when you can along the way. This approach not only helps her connect with patients, but also gives her work greater meaning.
“I love when patients share with me their vacation photos and tell me about their grandkids,” Hou said. “Those are the little moments that really give a lot of joy. I’m happy about a good outcome in surgery and a good CAT scan, but in the long run, really what we do on a daily basis is try to improve quality of life for patients.”
Oncology can be a stressful and emotionally-draining field. Throughout cancer treatment, the provider guides the patient through many different phases, including diagnosis, surgery, treatments, and potentially through end-of-life transitions. As Dr. Hou has grown throughout her career, she has found that her approach to managing relationships with her patients has shifted.
“When I was younger, my approach was more about telling patients this is what they need to do to achieve certain outcomes – usually based on a lot of data, research, and the best standards of care,” Hou said. “I felt like I needed to give as much evidence-based care as possible so that patients would see me as a doctor whom they can trust. As I get older, I find myself becoming more emotionally open with my patients. I want them to see me as not just a skilled surgeon or an oncologist, but as a human being that genuinely cares about them.”
Establishing trust and a strong bond is a necessary component of having a successful relationship between provider and patient, which may continue for years depending on the course of a patient’s diagnosis and treatment.
“You’re meeting your patients at their most vulnerable points, where they are facing literal life or death,” Hou said. “To an outsider, there may seem to be a lot of emotional investment that’s required from the physician. But it’s a worthwhile trade-off. To develop a really meaningful bond with the patients, you have to earn it. I listen more, I ask them about their goals – not just medical, but their life goals. Throughout their treatment journey I revisit those goals, and do my best to make sure we are on track. For example, for some patients I build in treatment breaks so they can travel and visit friends and family. If you’re invested in their lives, it makes them more comfortable to share the things they’re going through, even related to their treatment. It’s a feedback loop that ultimately optimizes their care.”
From an early age, Hou had an example of a physician who wasn’t afraid to share her outside life with her patients and colleagues. Her mother, then a head surgical nurse in a hospital in Shanghai, would often bring Hou to work, where she remembers not just the busy surgical floor and white coats, but above all, the patients she met who were touched by her mother’s care. Hou, in turn, brought her own daughter along on rounds, where she met patients and other providers. She believes it is just as important to share her passion for her work with her daughter as it is for her patients and trainees to understand that she is not just a doctor, but a whole person.
Surgery is seen as a competitive field in medicine, where many providers may be forced to make compromises and have their personal lives take a backseat to their professional calling. By integrating the personal and the professional, however, Hou believes we can do better for our patients and our providers.
“We often feel like we have to choose, that we have to give up something in order to excel at something,” Hou said. “But the idea of perfection has to shift a little bit. I don’t want physicians in training to think that they should feel bad for trying to achieve balance in their lives. To be a good doctor, you have to live a good life. You need the support from other areas of your life to balance out the emotional and physical stress that comes with being a physician, so that you can continue to give the best possible care to your patients.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, with the immense toll that it has taken on health care providers, has inspired a great deal more conversation about depression and burnout in the medical field, and providers at all levels are opening up about their struggles. Oncology is an especially difficult field, with data showing that providers at cancer hospitals “are at high risk of developing emotional distress.”
In seeking to maintain a balanced and fulfilling life, Hou says she has learned a great deal from her patients.
“I learned to appreciate with intention things in your life on a daily basis,” Hou said. “Death is the only thing that will for certain happen to you. Beyond that, there is so much room to be grateful and experience joy, in things that we may miss in our busy lives. I have patients who are hospitalized because of treatment-related complications or surgery. When I talk to them, they’ll talk about their hospital room with a beautiful view overlooking the Hudson River, or their daughter’s college graduation coming up. When I have these conversations, it inspires me to be grateful, and to take every day as a grace.”